In Mali, A Village Caught Between Independence And Sharia

Touareg independence fighters
Touareg independence fighters
Jean-Paul Mari

MENAKA - In a land far from Mali's capital of Bamako, the houses are covered in rough cement, the streets in a reddish earth; the town is scattered with crumbling mosques and the dust sweeps through the sweltering heat. Opposite an enormous bazaar, there is another mosque, but this time, the men standing outside are all wearing the tagelmust –the turban of the Tuareg people.

Through a door made of stripped metal, we enter into a large courtyard, where small groups of women are sitting together on rugs. One woman, who is not wearing a headscarf, takes my hand. No Islamists here, for this is the villa of Chief Bajam, head of the Oulimeden tribe. He is the elected official of the region, appointed to the Malian National Assembly. Mostly though, he is the supreme authority of Menaka, an extremely strategic village of 100,000 people, close to the Niger border.

He appears, emerging out of the darkness, a huge figure in his shimmering, blue-grey, boubou robe and his dazzlingly bright tagelmust. In his large, powerful hands there is a strand of heavy, wooden prayer beads. He stands there, his black skin, darkened by the desert sun, his strong nose, his somber eyes and white beard.

In the vast hall, around 30 Tuareg men of all ages stare at the ground beneath them. My eyes become accustomed to the half-light, discovering the green, the blue, the dark red and the ochre of the boubous the men are wearing. The sad and rebellious eyes of the men pierce out from underneath their turbans. Bajam retells the story of the battle of Menaka and the disaster that took place there.

“Independence or Sharia”

On November 16, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) of the Tuareg people launched an offensive against the MOJWA Islamists (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) who have now seized control of Gao, a city in northeast Mali. The offensive was a complete failure. The MNLA separatists were ambushed, conceded defeat and retreated to the town of Menaka, a sanctuary.

However, the Islamists didn't back off, calling for reinforcements and rushing toward the town, heavily armed. The MNLA fled. Bajam seethes: "When they arrived in January, the Malian army had already left, but that did not prevent them from wreaking havoc in the town."

And then, everything was calm. However, once again, the MOJWA Islamists were approaching, and the people of Menaka decided to take a stand: "Independence or Sharia... no one has ever asked us our opinion!"

The Menaka tribe mobilized its troops: 70 men built a line of defense along the sand dunes at the entrance to the town, just before the camp's guards. They called in the MNLA army for reinforcements, hoping that they would bring the 60 armed-vehicles that were available in the area. The response: "We are coming." However, when the battle started, Monday Nov. 19, at around 7:00 A.M., the people of Menaka were alone on their sand dune. The MNLA was not coming. Later, by radio, their top general admits they backed out: "They are too powerful for us."

The Islamists pushed toward the sand dunes. One convoy came with 26 men and ammunition, then a second with 15 more. The first gunfire managed to engulf three MOJWA vehicles into flames. A shower of projectiles rained down on the dunes: "Shrapnel, rocket-launchers, machine guns... they crushed us." The battle raged on all day. And at around 10:00 P.M., in the dark, the Tuareg warriors of Menaka stood down.

“They’re all my children”

Bajam stops, his throat constricted. From one of his robe pockets, he takes out a ringing cellphone. Calling is an advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to Bamako, who thoroughly extends his condolences to the people of Menaka. Bajam listens, thanks him, puts the phone down and sighs: "Out of the 70 warriors, 12 are dead, 33 injured and 15 have been taken prisoner. 12 deaths... they’re all my children!" The men are defeated, their supplies exhausted. The attacks from the MOJWA seem to never end and the Tuareg unity is no longer active. The resistance is dead. Menaka has fallen to the hands of the Islamists.

Today, almost half of the population have fled– 45,000 people who have crossed the border into Niger and are now in refugee camps. Menaka is empty. The Oulimeden tribe is grief-stricken, the Tuareg people sickened and shocked by the brutality of the assault. They are angry at having been caught in the middle of the combat between MNLA separatists and the fanatic Islamists.

"We have to stop these events that are devastating the Sahel, we have to save the population," says Bajam, his voice a mixture of anger and despair. "If not, the Tuareg people will soon disappear."

When we ask him who he thinks should intervene in the conflict - be it the Malian army, Africans, Americans or the French - the old chief clenches his fists and says: "Only the Devil himself can stop this."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!